It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
I left Hanoi for Ninh Binh, a small town two hours south of the capital, best known for it’s remarkable limestone karst landscape.
The bus dropped me 2 kilometers before the bus stop. They probably thought I wanted to go to Tam Coc, where most of the backpackers head. I was flustered but I had not yet mastered the art of conveying what I wanted to say in the lack of a common language. I would learn that later but for now, I was pushed out by the conductor with a reassuring smile that this was where I wanted to get off while I kept pointing straight ahead. Google Maps was not quick enough to load and I found myself looking at the back of the bus as I figured out I would have to walk for the next twenty minutes to get to the hostel.
It wasn’t so bad despite the sultry heat and the hostel turned out to be a really nice one. I knew that it was the renovated old station building and that explained why it was so generously spacious and airy. The dorm room was alright with all the required facilities. Good choice! I saw a rare member of the pedigree Indian traveller while I was checking in. As is customary, we refused to acknowledge each other’s existence and he was checking out of the hostel anyway so there was no need to fear a further interaction. Amusingly, we were introduced by a common friend on Facebook that very night! Sometimes you have to hand it over to the universe; it has an amazing sense of humour.
Eerie empty roads of Ninh Binh
It was too late in the day to do any sightseeing so I decided to wander around. It seemed to me that the city had grown without sufficient reason. There were empty and wide roads all around. It looked like a hollow city. I walked up to the new railway station. It was in the middle of barren lands and seemed grander than it should have been. I walked in to find out how I could book a ticket to my next destination. It seemed a simple enough procedure, although I could not book a ticket then and there because I did not have my passport on me. There was a tout who was offering to sell me a ticket but I did not quite understand why anyone would use a tout for something so simple.
Ninh Binh Railway Station
I wandered through the lanes of the empty city. The kids here were amazingly friendly. You encounter a hello almost every time you cross a kid on the streets. There are usually more hellos and a few questions that follow if you choose to reply and engage in a conversation of limited vocabulary. Some kids run away after hurling the hello at you, so you wonder at times where it came from.
However, the adults usually stare at you with a look of curiosity mixed with amusement. Probably trying to figure out where you are from and what you are doing in the narrow residential lanes of their town.
Not able to find interesting people in the hostel, I went walking once again in the evening. I first ate some delicious banh xeo with nem lui. You are given a tray full of ingredients and are supposed to roll them up into a tasty snack. I came back for it once again on my last day in town.
Banh xeo with nem lui - Wrap and roll!
I then walked to the north-east of the town where a green patch on Google Maps seemed like an interesting destination to look up. And it was! It was a big park full of locals who were starting to pour in for their evening walks and jogs. The ill maintained park had a mini-zoo and swings as well. Seemed like the recreational hub of the town. There were some elderly women standing in a line and giving a back massage to the one in front. I found it extremely amusing but despite their candidness, could not muster the confidence to stand and point a camera at them. I had still not gotten used to taking photographs of strangers. I just shot a video while passing them.
There was a staircase going up a rock at the end of the park. There was a small view point up there, a bust of some famous person, a shelter with Chinese roofs, a Vietnamese flag and the hammer and sickle of Socialism. I wandered around for a bit, looking at the interesting sights and people that the small rock had to offer.
Hammer and Sickle
Pretty resting spot
As I walked back towards the hostel, an old man started talking to me. He asked me where I was from.
He did not get me. Spanish?
No. An Do.
He still did not get me but offered me a beer which I refused because of my experiences with over-friendly locals in Hanoi. I debated on how wise I had acted while I walked back to the hostel.
Vietnam Tip #6
You could learn the Vietnamese name of your country to tell them to the locals. They almost always ask for your country and hearing it in their own language makes them happier! India is An Do in Vietnamese.
The hostel was airing the Euro Cup matches and my nights here would be spent in the common area watching these matches, at times with interesting and other times with forgettable people.
The next day I rented a bicycle from the hostel. It was rather expensive, even for a mountain bike. It cost me 70 kVND while a motorbike was 100 kVND. However, I wanted to do something physical as I had been feeling sloppy of late so I chose the former.
There are two places around Ninh Binh that boast of the limestone karst landscape : Tam Coc and Trang An. Of these, Tang An is the less touristy one and a UNESCO world heritage site as well.
I rode towards Trang An in the relentless sun. It burned me despite the dark tan I had already acquired. The limestone rocks presented themselves a little out of Ninh Binh. They looked amazing; a rock standing abruptly in the middle of a plain. I actually had no idea what to expect from Trang An as I had left that bit in my research as a (hopefully pleasant) surprise. I also kept looking for a place that served local specialty De Nui (mountain goat) but ended up not having it anywhere.
Pro Tip #10
Always leave a certain gap in your research in order to enjoy the place that you are visiting. For historical places, you might want to read up a bit but don’t see a hundred pictures of the landscapes you are about to visit!
At Trang An, I parked the bike by paying 15 kVND. This felt rather stupid because bicycles should be free or negligible to park. I don’t know why but it just seems wrong to charge bicycles and motorbikes the same amount! I also bought the traditional conical hat in my typical style of taking precautions after I had been burnt.
The entry ticket cost me 150 kVND. It seemed somewhat steep at first but was more than justified later. It included the price of the boat that was to take me around. A boat can easily take 4 people so I had to wait a little before being adjusted with a Vietnamese family that spread out across three boats. They seemed rather reluctant to have me initially but gave me a seat to sit in.
Boat trip with a Vietnamese family
We set out in the rowboat with the boatwoman rowing from behind and me and another guy helping out with single paddles from the front. Two ladies and a baby occupied the middle seat. Life jackets were provided but reluctantly enforced. The sun was harsh, the water was cool and the scenery was amazing. Our three boats stuck together as we rowed into the lake amongst the huge limestone rocks. Signs of civilization have been found in these rocks and there is an occasional structure looming here and there. We came upon a temple and the Vietnamese family talked to the boatwoman in their language. I had no idea what they exchanged but we ended up skipping the temple. I wasn’t complaining. I had seen enough of temples anyway. I was more interested in the natural sceneries of the place.
Beautiful scenery at Trang An
I was expecting this to be the end of the trip and for us to turn around but we continued forward. I could not see a way ahead, just a big rock that we seemed to be heading straight at. Were we heading there for a swim? As we got closer, I could see a small gap under the rock, but it did not seem like a likely destination.
Heading into a rock
We got closer and the first boat did not slow down; it slipped right into the seemingly impossibly small gap! Our boat went in as well. These river tunnels were extremely exciting and amazing. The ceiling was mostly inches away from the head and at times you needed to duck to evade it.
There were a lot of such tunnels but the first two were the best ones. They were the most natural while some of the others had been obviously cut up to aid the passage of boats. There was electric lighting to aid visibility as well. The boatwomen oared with practiced expertise. Almost all the boats were handled by women and this was quite a physically taxing task!
Inside the river tunnels
The entire experience got somewhat tedious after a while but that was probably because of the weather. The hot and humid climate made the stretches between the tunnels painful. The lack of a wind did not help either. We took breaks in the shade of the caves and skipped all the temples. The entire trip lasted two and a half hours and I just wonder how much longer would it have been had we stopped at the three temples on the way. The Vietnamese family had warmed up to my presence and offered me water and some snacks. I had come ill prepared because I was expecting the trip to be much shorter! There are shops set up in the temple complexes though, so one could stop there to pick up some nibbles and drinks.
The boatwomen are extremely skilled. They can row the boat with their hands as well as their feet! They do it by themselves to rest their arms at times. But you can simply ask them for a demonstration and they might oblige.
There are many more pictures of the tunnels and Trang An in the album at the end of the post!
Back at the wharf I tipped our boatwoman an amount similar to what the family had given and sat to cool down. There were options for food and refreshment here but I was thinking of getting something from some place more local.
Disturbing statues at the wharf
Once I was rested, I went to get my bike. This was not entirely without complications. The parking attendant had changed and the new one was asking for money that I had already paid to the previous attendant. I tried explaining but she did not understand English. After much frustration, it was here that I realised the power of the Google Translate app. I pulled out my phone, typed in what I wanted to say, translated it and handed it to her. She read it, smiled and let me out. It was really that simple!
Pro Tip #11
Don’t be frustrated at the lack of a common language. Technology makes things simple, use it. Many people can read their language despite not being able to understand your’s! Keep your phone charged and a translation app handy.
Bich Dong Pagoda
I decided to go to Tam Coc next to check it out. I rode through the internal roads which were not as hot as the barren highways. The countryside was unspectacular for me though. It was a typical village and I have seen many of the kind.
Tam Coc itself turned out to be very much a backpacker ghetto. I had initially thought of eating there but the burger joints and pizzerias made me change my mind. I pedalled on and reached the Bich Dong Pagoda at the end of the Tam Coc road. There was a 10 kVND parking fee here as well! All this was ruffling me up. But the pagoda was nice enough to calm me down. There was no entrance fee for the pagoda itself, which, though expected, was a relief.
Entrance to Bich Dong Pagoda promised serenity
I walked around the temple that I saw. A monk was cleaning the premises and we exchanged smiles.
Temple : Level 1
Just when I was thinking “Is this it?”, I saw a board pointing to a staircase. I went up to find another small temple. I just saw all these temples from the outside. I did not go into any of them, mostly because I was too tired to take off my shoes!
Temple : Level 2
There was a passage going behind it that I supposed went around the temple and I decided to take a round. The path was somewhat dark and I heard muffled steps coming from the other end before seeing a girl emerge out of the darkness. Upon getting closer, I saw that the path actually led to a staircase that went up into the dark. Alright. I climbed up to the sounds of bats. It was a friggin’ cave! And it was dark! A real bat cave! 😜
From the Bat Cave!
I used the camera for some light since my phone was dead. The other side of the cave was another small temple and a path going further up. I climbed to a yet smaller temple up there.
Temple : Level 3
Temple : Level 4
A girl was sitting on the steps and I asked her whether this was the end of the levels. There was a stony path ahead but there was also a sign that said Do not Climb Up. She shrugged and replied that a few friends of hers had gone up. I could hear and see two fellows up there. So I climbed up as well. The view was nice and there was a slight breeze. Was this it? They said two more of their friends were further up! This was where I finally went from “Amazing!” to “WTF!”.
I could hear voices and they came into sight soon. They were climbing down and I asked them what it was like up there. They told me its beautiful but also told me to be careful of the rocks since they were really sharp. I put the hat back and the camera and glasses in the bag and readied myself for the climb. This was the first real test for my new shoes. The mud disappeared soon enough and I seemed to be walking on rocks of weird shapes. After a day of marvelling at them from a distance, I was finally seeing a karst up close. It seemed like there were spikes and spines made in the rock. I climbed a little further using my hands to pull me through. Then I sat for a breather and saw the exhilarating scenery from above. The vast krast landscape looked beautiful from this height.
I climbed a bit further but then stopped when I realised that there was no one around nor was likely to be. In case of a problem I would, quite literally, find myself between a rock and a hard place. So I backed up and came down. I rode back to the hostel sweaty and happy at all the physical activity that I had gotten throughout the day. I rewarded myself by going to the town’s Jollibee later that night to satisfy my craving for a burger.
I sat watching the matches in the common room that night and met two Germans there, Ricardo and Nils. Ricardo had been to India and had lived in Auroville for 3 months. I asked him how the place worked since it had always been a mystery to me. But it turned out to be the same old money minded thing. He was a proper traveller who was big on couchsurfing and all in all a pretty cool guy. Nils was biking from Hanoi to Saigon and had the scars from a recent bike accident. I showed the guys pictures and videos from Trang An, recommending the place and then once Ricardo had left, I showed Nils pictures from my Ladakh trip. I try selling India at every opportunity I get!
I woke up early for the Copa match. The unimpressive breakfast at the hostel was also expensive. Nils came around and we started talking again. I had told him about my plans to do the caves near Dong Hoi and he was interested as well. I told him that I was planning to go by train and told him how he could book his tickets using baolau. But he got busy with a girl who was hitting on him so I let them be. Young love! 😄
I checked out of the hostel and dumped my bag in their storage room. I told Nils that I would be around since my train left late in the night. He was planning on going to Tam Coc so we would not have a chance to sync up till much later in the day. I went back to the railway station to book my ticket. The hat really helped! Despite the sun, I was at relative ease when I reached the station. There was no one at the counter though. I sat for a good 15-20 minutes before I decided to go out and seek some Bun Cha which I had started craving somewhat. But there was no Bun Cha to be found. In fact, there was no decent food option around which is rather surprising for a railway station. When I returned to the station, I found a lady at the counter and booked my ticket for Dong Hoi despite the rickety communication. We used a pen and a paper to explain ourselves to one another. I got a hard seat in the sleeper class, an upper berth which I actually prefer, for 369 kVND. It was considerably less than the price I had seen on baolau.
I came back to the hostel and sat working. Made some improvements in the blog. I was getting a hang of the front-end technologies. Then I decided to go walking around the town once again. I went to the Cho (local market) and finally found the people of Ninh Binh! So this was where they all lived. My hostel and the railway station were in the outskirts of the town. The market had vegetables, meat, fruits, flowers, clothes, shoes and more; all available in whole sale! I walked around and returned with the satisfaction of having had found the people.
Cho Ninh Binh
While walking back, I ran into an alley which had been converted into a badminton court. There were men in their 60’s or so playing and I stopped to watch. I found their athleticism quite remarkable for their age. But they started looking at me a little uneasily, so I decided to stop hanging around in the shadows and leave them to their game.
Ricardo came around as I sat writing in the common room. We talked about his day and then he asked me if I played Chinese Chess. I did not know that there was a Chinese version of the game! Unfortunately we could not find it in the hostel so we had to leave it be. He told me about it and it sounded interesting (I am now trying to learn the game using an app on my phone). We sat to watch the ongoing football match and talked some more. He would have been one cool person to stay in touch with but he did not have any online accounts.
Nils’ friend came up to me to give me his contact. He had gone out but had asked me to get in touch. I left him a message and then picked up my bag and made for the station around 10:15 PM. My train was at 11 in the night. I was hoping to find Nils there.
The roads were awfully quiet. I realised that it was the lack of noisy drunk men and barking street dogs that lent the streets this haunted silence. The sky was clouded but there was no wind, as usual. A veiled moon added to the spookiness of the night. I got to the station and sat waiting with a number of other Vietnamese people. No Nils though. The gates opened 5 minutes before the train was due. The people flocked on to the platform and waited for the train to arrive. It did so shortly afterwards and I walked up to my coach where an official checked my ticket and I was admitted inside.
Boarding the train
The cabins were like the first class category of India and I found my seat number printed outside one of them. The upper berth of the three tiered sleepers in Vietnam almost touches the ceiling! There was very little room for maneuvering oneself. The freezing air-conditioner had a vent right above my head and I had trouble falling asleep. I did sleep eventually but it was intermittently broken with the fear of missing my station. I kept checking my phone every hour to see if it was time for arrival at Dong Hoi. I finally got out of bed at 7 and sat down with the rest of the members of the compartment. Vendors came around to sell breakfast and water. Beautiful sceneries passed outside the window. Railways are so much better than taking buses.
Sleeper coach gallery
The entire arrangement seemed pretty nice. However, I did not quite understand why something so basic as the railways was made so luxurious and expensive. If they could remove the air-conditioning to slash down the rates would that not be more beneficial to the population in general? Everything in Vietnam was air-conditioned; buses, trains, taxis. I just don’t not get the need for it.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Ninh Binh leg of the trip.